UK govt has "open mind" to shale exploration
The UK government's apparent softening of its stance on English shale exploration continued with the publication of the new national energy strategy on April 7, which restated its policy pledge to remain "open minded" on reinstating hydraulic fracturing activity.
The strategy comes as the Conservative government has asked the British Geological Society to reexamine the scientific and safety outcomes of hydraulic fracturing, after the technique was banned by the government in a pre-election play in 2019.
Closing out shale gas has meant England losing access to a potential 37.6 trillion m3 of in-place gas in northern England's Bowland Shale, but the UK's relatively compact geography means there are political risks associated with drilling holes in northern countryside and urban heartlands.
Whitehall said it wanted to send a "clear signal" that it values the role of gas in the energy transition, by looking again at shale in line with its official neutral stance. But it is sticking to the 2019 ban for now, and will keep it in place unless BGS produces compelling evidence that shale drilling can be performed safely.
The government's energy policy paper said: "The pause continues to remain in place unless new evidence emerges. Any exploration or development of shale gas would need to meet rigorous safety and environmental protection both above ground and sub-surface."
That could be data that suggests we now know more about northern England's shale geology, or that other sites away from existing fracking sites have a lesser risk of seismic activity. In 2020, the Oil and Gas Authority - now known as the North Sea Transition Authority - reported that a seismic event caused by Cuadrillia's shale wells that led to the 2019 ban was "imperceptible", and that even characterising it as a significant tremor was difficult to scientifically justify.
England's existing shale gas site is the Cuadrilla Resources-operated New Preston Road project in Lancashire. The operator was ordered to cement the active shale wells earlier this year, but regulators at the end of March suspended the closure until the end of June 2023.
Cuadrilla's CEO Francis Egan commended Whitehall's decision to enlist BGS's expertise on April 5, saying the government "recognises" shale's huge potential though the review may be a "tentative first step" to overturning the ban.
"Anyone who has been following the science since 2019 will be surprise if the government in fact needs three months to take stock of the clear evidence that already exists," he said.